Chapter XXVII

Chapter Vignette

September, 1213

SIMON SPIED A CAULK-DUSTED RIDER trotting up the Saverdun road with a bloodied Aragonese knight dragged at the end of a rope. In a foul mood from having needlessly driven his weary cavalry across the barren causses, Simon spurred into a gallop to berate his tardy brother whom he had sent ahead to scout the Wolf's whereabouts. "Where in Hell's name have you been? You've left me blind for two days!"

"You've been blind since you fell ass-first from the womb." Guy dismounted and produced a letter from his hauberk. "Here's more reconnaissance than you'll wish to stomach. The Spaniard put up quite a fight for it."

Simon pressed his nose to the captured correspondence to aid his myopia. He read a few lines and broke an incipient smile. "Bring the lad to me."

Folques prodded up the Aragon king's firstborn, Jaimes, a sensitive seven-year-old who had been left in the custody of the Cistercians pending his marriage to Simon's daughter. Simon clasped the frightened boy's chin and tried to divine Peter's intention from the son's reaction to the news. "Your old man has crossed the Venasque Pass. Would you like to see him?" When Jaimes brightened at the prospect, Simon flung the boy onto his rump. "You'd best hope he's as eager to see you ... alive."

"Raymond will march out from Toulouse to join forces with Peter," warned Folques. "And the Wolf will be drooling for a fight." Simon crushed the letter in his fist. "Then we'll finally get to see their craven faces by the light of day. I've almost forgotten what they look like."

"We should return to Carcassonne at once," said Folques. Simon nullified that advice with a contemptuous spit. "I'll not be holed up by these meddling Spaniards." He drew his dagger and pressed it against the prisoner's jugular. "How many knights does Peter bring?"

"A thousand," said the Aragon courier. "More in infantry." Simon chortled with feigned indifference to reassure his apprehensive troops. He read the letter again, this time aloud, mocking Peter's famous lilt:

Dearest Azalais,

I find myself bent low with grief by the report of your misfortune. I leave on the morrow to avenge the offense dealt to you by this contemptible Norman. If you can find it in your heart to forgive my tardy response, meet me within the fortnight at Muret, where I shall endeavor to shower upon you love enough and more to amend a lifetime of indignities.

Your neglectful champion, Peter

Simon twisted the whimpering boy's earlobe. "I fear, pup, that your mama's not the wench being courted."

The soldiers cackled and made swooning sounds, but Folques did not share in their mirth. "You know the woman. You threw her out at Cabaret."

Simon's eyes darted to and fro, a certain sign that a stratagem was forming between his ears. "The memory of a man's first lover always grows more false with time. Is that not true, Bishop? You were once schooled in the mysterious ways of seduction." When done needling Folques about his troubadour past, Simon ordered Guy, "Find me a red-headed Delilah with a comely face."

Folques and Guy traded dubious glances, questioning if Simon had become punch-drunk from too many days in the saddle. While they were distracted, the Aragon prisoner attempted to crawl away. Simon captured the man by the scalp and sliced his throat from ear to ear.

Peter's son burst into tears, terrified by the grisly execution. "My father will come for me!"

Simon grasped the boy's nape and forced his eyes inches from the pooling blood. "You must give up that hope, lad. My victory against that whoreson's bastard is not in doubt, for God is on my side. If you behave, I may let you sit on my lap while I fart on your pappy's throne."


GUILHELM RUSHED INTO THE Aragon royal pavilion breathless from his forced ride from the front lines below Muret. "The conscripts have breached the Sales gate."

Elated by the unexpected breakthrough, Roger de Foix and his Occitan knights converged on a map to plan their assault against the small crusader force that they had trapped inside the walled bastide, which was situated a few leagues south of Toulouse. Count Raymond's militia, ill-disciplined and green, had been set loose on its western bulwarks to sap the garrison's strength in preparation for the full attack on the morrow. The Southern barons knew they would have to move quickly to capitalize on this propitious turn.

King Peter remained reclined on his chaise, in no hurry to settle upon an order of battle. The flaps had been retracted to allow him to lounge in comfort while monitoring the siege in the vale below. Raymond of Toulouse paced impatiently, forced to endure yet another debate between the monarch and the troubadour Miraval on the superiority of Provencal poetry over Arab verse.

"All in harmony with God's plan," said Peter with a wine-induced yawn. "My congratulations to your amateur sappers, Raymond. I dare say my Turkish ballistae had a hand in it."

Guilhelm was alarmed by the King's lethargy. "De Montfort rides this hour to relieve the garrison. We must cut him off before he reaches the river."

Peter sank into his silk-cased pillows and waved his goblet at a scullion for more wine. "All in due time, Templar. At Las Navas, I stared down the Moors for two weeks to weaken their knees. I even managed to write three chansons during the—"

Count Raymond slapped the flask from the startled attendant's grasp. "Enough of your insufferable tales! My lands hang in the balance!"

The King arose to confront Raymond, the only baron present with sufficient stature to speak to him so boldly. "I have this Norman churl exactly where I want him. Now he has no choice but to meet me on the open field."

Guilhelm and the officers traded sullen glances, fearful that the adulations showered on Peter during his march through Occitania had gone to his head. Greeted as a conquering hero, he had accepted without blush the comparisons with Caesar and Alexander. Guilhelm sympathized with Count Raymond's frustration, but the baron's own vacillations were so notorious that he held no coin to spend on demands for quick action. "My lord, de Montfort follows no code of honor," warned Guilhelm. "He'll employ any ruse to gain an advantage. I implore you to strike him while his forces are still divided."

The King walked unsteadily, impaired by the evening's drawn-out imbibing. "How many men do we have?"

"A thousand knights in your camp," said Guilhelm "The Counts of Foix, Toulouse, and Commiges command five hundred each."

"And de Montfort?"

Guilhelm hesitated. "Eight hundred."


"The thirty men holding the city."

The King took another healthy draught and licked his lips, confident in the developing calculus of his case. "Our foot soldiers?"

"Forty thousand," conceded Guilhelm.

The King withered his officers for doubting his judgment. "Who here says I cannot defeat de Montfort on the plains with such odds?" Finding none willing to take up his challenge, he stumbled back to his chaise and launched a loud belch. "Order the Toulousians to stand off. When de Montfort enters the city, I'll have him snared like the spotted skunk he is."

Incredulous, Count Raymond attempted to raise another protest, but seeing Peter marinating in such a languid state, the baron could only sulk from the pavilion muttering imprecations.

Peter waved off Raymond's petulance and motioned up a courier who had been waiting in the wings. Hearing the whispered message, the monarch broke a wide grin and smoothed his robes. "Out! All of you! And make certain the flasks are filled." As the knights departed, Peter winked at Guilhelm. "Templar, I have you to thank for this night."

"My lord?"

"Lady Azalais calls on me."

Guilhelm considered such a visitation unseemly on the night before a battle. Yet after being chastised for questioning the King's strategy, he deemed it imprudent to say more. Making his way to his own quarters, he crossed paths with a hooded woman being led to the pavilion by two Calatravans. He was afforded only a fleeting glimpse of the lady from Cabaret. She was still beautiful with full lips painted red and skin as white as a swan's neck. He had not seen her since the banishment from her chateau. She seemed not only remarkably recovered from that calamity but younger than he remembered. He turned to offer a greeting, but the Calatravans whisked her into the royal pavilion before he could speak to her.

SIMON AND FOLQUES LED THEIR eight hundred crusaders across the Muret bridge under a full moon. The Toulousian militia, massed between the river and walls, held back from attacking in accord with Peter's orders. But the Lion's taunts became too much for them to endure. The Occitans charged across the span, too late to prevent the crusaders from gaining the gate. Exhilarated by the ease of his crossing, Simon sped through the bourg and made his way to the citadel where his beleaguered garrison greeted him with cries of joy. Hearing the roar, the pursuing Toulousians beat a disorganized retreat to their earthworks, convinced that the Lion was launching a counterattack.

Simon scaled the tower's stairwell and found Dominic Guzman holding a prayer vigil in the donjon's chapel. The Castilian monk loosed a hosannah and fell prostrate at Simon's boots. "The Lord hath answered my prayers!"

Simon's eyes dampened from their emotional reunion. He pulled Dominic from his knees and shot a glare of disgust at Folques. "At last I have with me a man of God who preaches the wrath of Hell instead of retreat."

"Strike them!" howled Dominic. "The archangels shall fly with you! Break the nefarious legions of Lucifer!"

The two old comrades climbed arm-in-arm to the ramparts and inspected the lay of the Aragon camp on the Perramon plateau to the north. Simon snorted with derision on finding that Peter had positioned his army several leagues from the Count of Toulouse's headquarters. "The Languedoc is not large enough for two fluttering peacocks."

Folques pointed to a more sobering discovery in the low valley between the Aragon camp and Muret's walls. "The Wolf protects the King's center."

Simon cocked his ear at the faint thrum of a troubadour's song in the Aragon camp. "They spend the night in revelry."

"They can afford to sit and chirp," said Folques. "They know we have only a day's supply of victuals left."

Simon closed his bloodshot eyes in deep contemplation. After nearly a minute of this entranced prayer, he roused with a maniacal look and ordered, "Muster the men in the square."

Folques feared that Simon had finally buckled under the strain. During the past months, the Norman had adopted nonsensical tactics, some even suicidal. "We've had no sleep for two nights! Allow me to negotiate terms."

Ignoring Folques's plea, Simon returned to his steed and rode across the ranks of his weary crusaders. "We attack from three directions!" he ordered. "A sacred aspect of the Holy Trinity will guide each squadron.

I will remain in reserve with the Holy Ghost."

These veterans of the heretic war were accustomed to their commander's frequent conversations with the archangels. Yet they traded skeptical glances, dismayed to find him under the delusion that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost would ride into battle with them. Every Christian knew that the Trinity had never been seen together, not even by the saints.

"Peter is protected by the Wolf," reminded Guy.

"The Wolf is a coward!" said Simon. "Our forebears conquered the Saxon and the Saracen! This day these song-sotted Ocs will join that roll!"

Guy warned his brother, "If Raymond sends his knights to our rear, our only escape route will be cut off."

Simon flogged his exhausted horse to keep it from collapsing to its forelegs. "We'll reach the Aragon camp before the Toulousians are even helmed."

After an hour passed, a flash from the watch lantern announced the sun's approach. Simon stole a conspiring glance at Dominic, then ordered Folques, "Bishop, if you wish to send priests to parlay, do so now."

Folques released a sigh of utter relief, gratified that the few minutes of sleep had restored Simon to his senses. He drafted two barefoot friars and rushed them from the gate with instructions to seek favorable terms from King Peter by promising a new church built in his honor when Jerusalem was restored. While the friars hurried across the bridge as fast as their blistered feet would allow, Simon sat so lifeless in his saddle that some of his men feared he had expired. When sufficient time had passed for Folques's emissaries to reach the Wolf's sentinels, Dominic touched his crucifix against the forehead of Simon's ebony warhorse. The Lion resurrected and took the Eucharist to his tongue, savoring his first morsel of sustenance since the morning prior. Invigorated by the power of Our Lord's resurrected Body, he unsheathed his sword and motioned his crusaders into their three assigned columns.

Flummoxed by the sudden mobilization, Folques was nearly trampled by the horses of the marshalling crusaders. "What are you doing?"

Simon shared a shifty grin with Dominic to confirm that their ruse had purchased a few more minutes of rest while deceiving the Wolf into dropping his guard. "You must train your priests to walk faster."

Dominic's smoldering eyes ignited with the anticipation of God's approaching rectitude. He clambered to the walls testifying and exhorting the crusaders on with the fervency of an Old Testament prophet. "And Yahweh ordered the Israelites to rise up and smite the Moabites and fill the river with the blood of their pagan king!"

Simon snapped his horse into a fast lope toward the Sales Gate. His squadrons followed in a silence that was broken only by Dominic's hellfire and the clack of hooves echoing in the cold morning air.

BEDDED DOWN ON THE FAR banks of the river, the Toulousian militiamen were awaked by the earth shaking below their heads. They hurried to their weapons, certain that the Northerners were sallying forth along the slender path beyond the walls to attack their position. But Simon bypassed the bridge and kept close along the shadows, turning left at the angle to follow the banks of the Louge. His crusaders split off into their assigned squadrons and took aim at the marshy ford just beyond the Aragon camp.

"The King is attacked!" screamed the Toulousians.

Guilhelm was jolted from sleep by the same clarion blast that he had heard below Lavaur. He rushed from his tent and was met with a spectacle that would have churned the most battle-hardened of stomachs. In the valley below Muret, the burnished shields of de Montfort's knights flashed under the dawn sun like streaks of lightning. Roger and his Foix men, their horses unsaddled, stood conferring with the two friars sent by Folques. They had no time to don their armor.

Guilhelm ran into the royal quarters and found Peter surrounded by empty flasks and reeking of debauchery. He pulled the drowsy King from the bed. "You must rise at once, my lord!"

Racked by a hangover, the King bent over the bed and retched. "I feel as if I'm drugged!"

"Rally your men! De Montfort attacks!"

Peter stumbled out in his stained nightshirt and floundered to his knees. The Aragon knights stared aghast at their King's peccant condition. His attendants hurriedly wheeled up a wooden contraption that resembled a miniature gallows and cranked a lever to raise the heavy suit of royal armor gilt in turquoise above Peter's wobbling head. Before the breastplate could be lowered, the King spied one of his guards rushing to his horse without armor. "Good man! Where is your hauberk?"

"No time, my liege!"

"Take my breastplate! I'll have no knight less protected than me."

Given no say in the matter, the attendants fitted the reluctant knight with the royal armor and draped his head with the coif of gold-embroidered silk. Peter rummaged through the livery piles and found an unadorned breastplate and helmet. Satisfied with the exchange, he saw Guilhelm mustering the bataille of thirty Aragon knights placed under his command. "Templar! No assault until I give the order!"

A clattering report of splintered lances echoed up from the lower field. Guilhelm turned in time to see the two crusader squadrons drive into Foix's cavalry like the flanges of a pitchfork. Amid the horrid grind of metal, Roger and his ambushed knights fought bravely and shouted, "Remember Trencavel! Remember Beziers!"

Guilhelm quickly set his echelon in formation. "No sorties! We fight as one!" The Aragon knights turned on him as if expecting something more, perhaps a prayer or some rousing quote of Scriptures. But he had no use for such florid platitudes. Battle was discipline, pure and simple. What difference did it make if a man believed God wished him to prevail? He had killed too many Saracens who were convinced of the same preordained victory.

The onrushing crusaders did not stop to melee with the Foix survivors, but galloped up the ridge toward the Aragon left flank, which was still in chaos. A light rain began thrumming an achromatic tune on the gleaming iron bonnets and soddening the soft turf into a curdled paste of red clay and manure. The half-dressed squires scrambled to bring up their masters' mud-clodded horses. The King's Navarrese dart throwers fired their curled Turkish bows to give cover, but the crusaders had made up too much ground"”the arrows fell harmlessly behind them.

On the right flank, Guilhelm saw that Peter had yet to form his bataille. He ordered his echelon to the center of the field to afford the monarch a few more precious seconds. The charging crusaders lowered their lances and leaned into the necks of their steaming warhorses for protection. He waited for the signal for the countercharge. In the distance, under Muret's walls, he saw Simon holding back a squadron of three hundred horsemen.

He intends to try the flank!

Armored at last, Peter took his position of honor on the left echelon. Guilhelm drew a breath of renewed confidence"”all was now ready. With the high ground, his Aragonese knights still held the advantage if they moved quickly. Inexplicably, the royal banner remained unfurled.

Give the order, damn you!

To Guilhelm's dismay, King Peter sat inert, unwilling to meet de Montfort's dastardly attack, as if to do so would grant his deceitful ploy an imprimatur of correctness. If the monarch did not advance at once, he would suffer the same lesson learned by the Saracens in Palestine: Monfort's ponderous chargers on the run would overwhelm the smaller, stationary Aragon ponies. Guilhelm angrily slammed his helm into place and shouted, "Tighten the line!"

Fools and their damned chivalry!

He signaled for the frondejadors to let loose with their hand slings. The sky filled with rocks"”the Northerners saw the launch in time and raised their shields. When that tactic failed to slow them, he ordered lances lowered in preparation to countercharge. His knights turned in astonishment, unable to accept that he would move without the King's command.

Guilhelm dug his spurs. "Advance!"

The Aragon destriers lurched to the impact. Guilhelm wrapped his reins around his left cast and held his lance with his right hand; if unhorsed, he would be dragged to his death, but he had no choice. His knights dropped their lances to eye level and took aim at the heads of the onrushing crusaders. The two armies were nearly in range to lock shields and-”

The crusader squadrons splayed apart in a stunning maneuver.

Unnerved by the feint, Guilhelm's knights disintegrated into a vortex of tangled lances and spooked mounts.

"The King!" screamed a dozen Aragon voices to his rear.

Guilhelm reined back. The crusaders had outflanked his bataille and were reforming in a wedge to take aim at Peter's poorly organized phalanx on the left. The Aragon knights abandoned Guilhelm and rushed toward their royal banners, too late. The crusaders converged on Peter like wasps on a dollop of honey. Beset from all sides, the monarch fell from his white charger. The crusaders closed in on him and hacked down his outnumbered guards.

A Frank tore off Peter's helmet. "This is not the King!"

The royal Aragon guards were stunned"”one of their dead comrades, not Peter, wore the monarchial armor. Rattled, they abated their fighting and gave way, uncertain who was friend and foe.

Peter came galloping over the ridge on a sleek black Arabian. Clad in a common hauberk, he shouted, "Here is your King! Follow me!"

The Aragon knights were now doubly paralyzed by confusion. Yet Peter fought so ferociously that the Northerners began to back away, educated as to why hundreds of Moors had fallen to his sword.

Abandoned in the mayhem, Guilhelm looked toward the Toulousian camp. Where was Count Raymond? His Occitan knights offered the only hope to turn the tide. A low rumble swept above the din of the battle"”Simon had unleashed his reserve battalion and was angling athwart to encircle the dwindling Aragon line. Guilhelm spurred to the kill. He drove Simon from the saddle and lifted his broadsword with his good arm to deliver the coup stroke.

Simon captured Guilhelm's saddle riggings and wrangled his horse to the ground. "I'll have that other hand!"

Guilhelm had the presence of mind to relax his tensed muscles as he leapt airborne. He somersaulted to the churned muck and came to a jaw-rattling stop. He tried to crawl from harm's way, but his iron arm was entangled in the reins and the eye slit and airholes of his helmet were ajar, obscuring his vision. His parched mouth was so hard pressed against the caved metal that he feared he would suffocate. He heard the familiar laugh as the Norman raised his battle-ax.

"Where's my son?" shouted Peter, his round face latticed in blood as he ploughed a furrow of destruction to reach Simon.

Simon abandoned Guilhelm and charged at the monarch with a taunt.

"Learning the catechism you failed to teach him!"

Peter heaved and retched as he ran. "I'll teach you penance!"

"Did you enjoy the lady?" asked Simon. "Did she find it in her heart to forgive you? That Toulouse whore cost me a fair coin!"

Peter stumbled to a halt, weak-kneed from shock. Only then did he comprehend that Simon had intercepted his letter and had given it to an Occitan prostitute armed with soporifics. Peter dropped his sword, undone by the code of chivalry that he had devoted his life to see prospered. The crusaders swarmed him from all sides, competing to mete out the final stroke. He slumped to his knees under the bludgeoning. A thrown lance pierced his mail shirt and impaled his lungs, drawing a guttural moan. He looked down in disbelief at his blood jellying in the links under his throat.

De Montfort dived into the fray. "Leave me the last blow!"

Guilhelm hacked free his tangled arm and yanked off his helmet. He corralled a balking mount and fought a path toward the Toulousian camp on the far hill. There he found Count Raymond pacing under his pavilion with head in hands while troubadours comforted him with chansons to lament the day. Roger de Foix, half-conscious from a leg wound, was surrounded by Raymond de Perella and the few Foix knights who had survived the onslaught.

Tears streamed down Count Raymond's puffy cheeks as he kicked at the traitorous ground. "The fool has ruined me!"

"You can still turn them!" said Guilhelm. "Order your knights into battle!"

Count Raymond stared off into the distance, lost in a haze of misery and despair. He muttered to himself, "In one hour, our world has vanished."

After decimating Peter's army, de Montfort turned his squadrons back on the city and drove the Toulousian militia into the wedge formed by the walls and the river. Dominic and Folques stood on the ramparts waving their staffed crucifixes and hurling promises of damnation at the Occitans, who were forced to make the choice between death by drowning or the sword.

By dusk, four thousand Southern corpses floated down the blood-tinged Louge toward Toulouse.